Thursday, September 23, 2021

Ave Atque Vale, Angela. Hardly Knew You

Under ordinary circumstances, when you bring a newcharacter on stage for appearance in a novel or short story, you putter with your equivalent of a casting call, build an individual with traits and talents in some relationship to the story. Your first chore is to make sure there is some form of chemistry between that character and the protagonist.

Next step--you do a quick survey of individuals you've known in real life, whisk away some of that character's traits, shake the way a seasoned bartender shakes a cocktail, then you begin to write. As specific examples of this process at work, a former publisher for whom you worked and a former department head at a university you taught have turned into an aggregate of a quirky, self-involved sort of antagonist, someone the protagonist must suffer to some degree with each encounter.

Enter Angela Ayers, who came to life only two days ago as a means of bringing historical and attitudinal information on stage relative to a fictional town in New Mexico for your current project, The Robber Barons.  When you began sketching a few notes for her, you realized she is entirelyfrom whole cloth. You don't know anyone from real life who in any way approximates her.  You wish, in fact, that there were someone like her because you would immediately have a crush on her.  That said, you put her to work. You were not surprised to discover, after you reviewed yesterday's pages, that your protagonist has a crush on her. He's not quite aware of the fact, but he surely will come to realize the chemistry of his attraction when he catches himself wondering if he can lure her from Albuquerque, where she runs a ladies' clothing emporium, to San Francisco, where her education, attitude, and intelligence could lead her to even greater levels of achievement.

The thing he doesn't know about her yet--but will soon discover--is that her father was not adverse to robbing the occasional train in Texas or the Arizona Territory. You only discovered this a few days ago. Given her polar-but-largely-admiring regard for her father, Angela also tried her hand at holding up a train, found herself enjoying the experience to the point where she did it again, and yet again.  Thus she has become an invention of such singular importance that an outcome for her you'd not considered will have to be put into play.  She has to go, which is to say she needs to be killed off. You have no idea how this will come about, but you have forty or fifty thousand words of text in which to make your discovery.

This represents the uncomfortable parallel between creating stories, with which you have some experience, and playing God, with which you have neither experience nor art. The closest you can approximate the former experience with the experiences of real life resides on the loves and losses you've experienced all these many years. You've lost grandparents, parents, friends, lovers, animals; you've lost a beloved sister and a beloved wife.  One of the many reasons you're embarked on this book at all is to get a sense of a contemporary character, the 2020's, as it were, and his grandfather. You already know how your grandfather character is going to take the loss of Angela Ayers. You've been there, done that. Now, you get to write about it.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Days of Wine, Roses, and Shot Sheriff's

Your first formal step taken toward becoming a writer of fiction came when you signed up for the course in creative writing offered by one of the most popular teachers in the Fairfax High School (7850 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles, CA) of your day. Herman Quick left you with a rousing number of memories. He'd just come off a successful diet to lose weight. Your experiences of him involve a thin, natty dresser. Indeed his trademark was the double-breasted suit.

At Quick's suggestion, you bought--and to this day treasure--a book with the inspirational title, How to Write Magazine Fiction.  Written by a man who worked both sides of the street. By one of his names, he was editor for a prestigious scholarly press. By another of his names, he indeed wrote for magazines.

The advice from Herman Quick, "Shoot the sheriff in the first paragraph," had a broad acceptance in How to Write Magazine Fiction .  You set forth at a blistering pace to shoot various sheriffs in numerous first paragraphs. Indeed,over seventy years later, here you are, in the midst of a two-book contract to deliver stories where there are sheriffs, lawmen, and private investigators such as operatives for the PinkertonAgency.

You in fact are fresh from having attempted to purchase from Amazon's book division a book you acquired in your role as editor in 1965 and was published early the next year. The book, The Pulp Jungle,was a memoir of Frank Gruber's early years writing for magazines that got their generic name from the fact of their printing on a low-grade, acidy paper commonly referred to as pulp.  The idea for this book came about when Gruber delivered to you a manuscript, Brass Knuckles, which was a collection of his crime stories featuring a character named Oliver Quade, also known as "The Human Encyclopedia."  Somewhere in the editing process, you'd observed to Gruber that these reprinted stories, gathered here for the first time, merited an introduction.

After you'd read the manuscript of the introduction for Brass Knuckles,  you phoned Gruber, who, as you recall, was at a television studio, serving in his own editorial capacity as story editor of the ongoing TV series, Tales of Wells Fargo.  "Just wanted to say," you said, "that this introduction could very well be expanded to, let's say fifty or sixty thousand words and, thus, your first book length work of nonfiction."

Gruber, being the man he was, said, "Not entirely true, kid."  He called you kid. You were in fact thirty-four. At the perspective from which you now write, he was correct to call you kid. He reminded you that he'd published a biography of the iconic Western writer, Zane Gray, and had self-published a biography of Horatio Alger.  "Bring you a copy of the Alger next time I see you," he said.  "Autographed, of course."  "Of course, you said." Then you went on to ask when your next visit would be.

"Couple of weeks," he said.  "Let's make it three." By which he meant that he'd bring in the manuscript for the source of these mamories, The Pulp Jungle."

In actuality, he needed a month. He seemed to have forgotten one of the two mysteries a year he write for the then publishing house of Dodd, Mead.

Last time you looked, the going price for a copy of The Pulp Jungle was $435.  Abe Books, this morning, offered a signed copy for $1, 250.  They'd also get you connected with an unsigned copy of Brass Knuckles for $45.

Gruber was not your only connection with this kind of hardboiled writing. You also had dealings with his good chum, Steve Fisher, with a noted contemporary, Bill S. Ballinger, and such glorious others as Robert Turner and Day Keene, even to the point of publishing another memoir from Keene's and, for a time, your literary agent, Donald McCampbell, Don't Step on it, It May Be a Writer.

Those were glorious days, times when you found yourself sitting across desks and tables with the daughter and son--in-law of another grand writer from those days, Frederic Schiller Faust, also known as Max Brand; with William F. Nolan, whom you single-handedly convinced to lower Logan's age from 30 to 21.  

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Details, Devils, and Sundry

 One of your favored concepts for your own composition, your teaching others to compose their own work, and your priorities for focus in your role of editor insists that the devil resides in details.  You've evolved your consideration of this notion to include the absolute equivalency between details and characters in your own composition.

Thus not only do the characters themselves plan, flail about, scheme, lie,  and indulge denial, there is a host of nouns and adjectives in orbit about them,offering distractions, life-saving vests, and solutions. More to the point, when you begin to edit your own work, the first things you look for are laggards, characters who serve no purpose and 

Monday, July 26, 2021


Dramas begin as daydreams, morph into night dreams before they are written on some medium, written, revised, then edited and published, where they are read, reread, interpreted.

Story is the cognac of our emotions, distilled for us to sip on, one beat at a time in the snifter of our inner experience. Story has become a life we savor inwardly in place of the life we lead.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

My Problems with Occam's Razor

Universes need not be unnecessarily expanded.

--William of Occam 

When you find yourself in the middle of the many things you've already begun, outcomes and resolutions appear to have lit out for parts unknown, their baggage assembled in haste, tails tucked low on their haunches. This leaves you abandoned in the wake of why you begin projects in the first place.

You've had a near lifetime to consider the mechanics of this condition. From time to time, answers appeared within your grasp. All projects and dreams have beginnings. Stories set off with some purpose, dreams begin for you with the awareness of a need. Over the years, many of your stories began with a character confronted with a choice or task. Your dreams often have you in a locale without shoes and thus your attempts to negotiate terrains not suited for bare feet. A variation of this theme has events of your dream dependent on your ability to find your car.

Sometimes days passed with no firm grasp on the moment of engagement, but when it came, some inner celebration within you spilled out into the atmosphere, where you could breathe it, see it, taste it. If the project showed signs of still greater intensity, you heard music in the same way you hear a soundtrack in a film. Wonder of wonder, the music you heard left you with the impression it, too, originated within your imagination, although in the past you've heard symphonies, ballet music, and chamber music compositions you were pleased to remember from your appreciation of music.

One of tools you rely upon in your roles as writer, teacher, and editor takes its name from its Latin origin, in the middle of things, thus In medias res.  The quickest way to apply the brakes to a story already set in motion may be found by providing physical and emotional descriptions before the dramatic action.  Look for the place where the lead character arrives at a similar condition you noted to begin this essay. Forget about chronology. Look for the place where the protagonist may be seen in action, her attempts to cope in direct proportion for the need to produce a significant, appropriate outcome.

In later years, you've warned students, editorial clients, and the aspect of you best seen as the writer: No stage directions. No description. No footnotes.

Your warning shifts to assurance with your observation that information and description are best served after the reader has enough information to read the situation ahead of the character, then begin to worry about it. So, okay, this Ishmael guy, he felt a bout of depression coming on, so he does the dramatic equivalent of slamming an Advil or two; he signs on a whaler, understands how a few months at sea will calm him. But wow, how's he gonna stay calm with a dude like that Ahab in charge?

How, indeed?

A possible plan:  consider story as a party. Arrive late, leave early, with the explicit takeaway that those who longer overlong at parties often get caught up in the cleanup activities.

Perhaps you'll learn the proper rhythm that will produce the outcome you seek. Perhaps not. Perhaps your clutter can best move you along in the state of delight with each new beginning. Perhaps remember to look for later places to begin your narrative at revision time.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

You, as the Most Pestiferous of All Your Creations

 Three books survive the various moves during your life to date, a barmitzva gift from a forgotten donor, a Christmas gift from your sister, and yet another gift from her in response to her asking your wish for a birthday present.

The earliest of these, a Rand-McNally Atlas of the world, bears an inscription from 1941. Although uninscribed, the second book, an enormous doorstopper collection of novels, sketches, and observations from Mark Twain, dates from your thirteenth year, and the last, a collections of poems and translations by Ezra Pound,  dates from the early 1950s.

Since you came into possession of these books, you moved from locations in Los Angeles, New Jersey, Masachussets, Rhode Island, and Florida. The circumstances of your last move, from 652 Hot Springs Road in that portion of Santa Barbara known as Montecito, to your present location, caused you to select one hundred titles from the five- to six-thousand accumulated by you and your late wife.

You've not made a true inventory, but your current book population exceeds fifteen hundred, a suggestion of how books come and go in your life but also the near miracle that you'd have the three survivors of your early years.

Let's get the Rand-McNally Atlas out of the way. Over the early years of your possession, you read it as you would a novel, using places, settings, and things you promised yourself to visit as focal points. The main value of the book now is sentimental. A gift from your beloved sister. Her handwritten inscription. If and when a time comes when you once again divest yourself of your books, you'll offer it to either of your nieces, convinced they'll accept it more to humor you than any wish to have this wannabe relic. Same kind of situation where your youngest niece and her husband took Rocky, your sister's dog, after your sister's death.

The other two books define your interests, your goals, large chunks of your eduction and attitudes; they made and continue to make contributions to your education, your perceptions of the worlds inside you and those in which you are a visitor. They represent what you wish to be, attempt to be, and use as a scale of equivalency against which you measure your progress as a person and a writer. 

Against your memories of times where your behavior seems now to have lacked such qualities as restraint, humility, consideration, and empathy, your awareness of the immense talents and visions of Twain and Pound humbld you, led you toward paths of self-improvement and understanding. At no time have you considered yourself their equals.

Into this acquisition of books, role models, and influences, you added the work and careers of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O'Hara, and Willa Cather, from which point you went on to find and become influenced by two flesh-and-blood mentors, the writer Rachel Maddux, and the actor Virginia Gilmore.

You were then officially a work in progress.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Role Model

 When you take on a literary role model, whether you realize it or not, you are attempting to add tools to your toolkit. The tools belong to your role model. In all likelihood you had no real awareness of such tools until you saw your role model using them in some easy way that made you think you could use them.

Because of your reeading habits as a boy, you were all over the place with writers you sought out. The fact of Albert Payson Terhune's long list of publications lead you to follow him. You were not looking for tools to borrow. True, he wrote about collies, a breed somewhere toward the middle of your okay list. The best you could offer of your interest at the time had to do with his clear understanding of how to deploy event and intent. These many years later, you remember his dog characters but cannot bring to memory any human. 

James Fenimore Cooper wrote about scouts and adventures, often impacted by Indians. Thus you worked your way through him and his shadowy people, all of whom, in mitigation, had names you could recall.

Helpful librarians suggested other authors such as Joseph Altschuller and Howard Pease. You still have a visual memory of the librarian who told you, yes, He'd be good for you. He wrote boys adventure books.

And there it was, your plight. You were a boy who read because he craved adventure, found non in the world about him, relied instead on that situation you now recognize as passive in its intrusiveness, not passive in its aggressiveness. You wanted story to fill the void. You wanted--ah, you could not describe what you wanted then. Your attempt to define it now may still want vital details. You wanted to eavesdrop on adventures others engaged.

Before long, you found on your own a writer who turned all that around, caused you to become aware of his incredible set of tools, caused you at one time in your life to apply as a correspondent to a newspaper he worked for, instilled in you the practice of copying out his sentences, looking for the products of the tools. Once, when you were in the midst of a class called wood shop, you became aware of the fact of wood having grain, of the rip and cross-cut saw to negotiate the grains of any given piece of wood. You began to pay attention to the merest scrap of wood that came your way, the better to detect its grain. You learned how to identify the blades of the hand saw in order to detect whether it ripped, or cut with the grain, or crossed against the grain.

You believe you've read most of the enormous output of this writer, knowing your opinion of his least effective work. You arrived at grudging agreement with another writer who wrote of how must American fiction begins with another of this writer's work. You had some moments of wishing to borrow tools from this second author, but your admiration and fandom had distinct boundaries.

Last year, you took the unthinkable step. You borrowed a number of this author's characters, mixing them freely with your own characters, your own narrative voice, your own vision, after all these years, of where you believe the writer should be in relation to story and character. Each time you read through work already set down, your first thought relative to the correctness of narrative tone and, in fact, each word, has to do with how much the text sounds like you rather than the resonant, anchored, purposeful sound of The Role Model.

The early years of your discovery of Mark Twain were magical. He had no choice in the matter. You wished to see as he saw, feel as he felt, write as he wrote. You wished to write like him. These later years, since your work began to find minor places of publication, you understood why he has been such a beacon for you. Perhaps if he were able to see some of your prose, read one of your more recent short stories, have a look at the opening pages of this latest venture in which a character of your own creation is hired by a principal character of his, Tom Sawyer, to find another and yet more enduring of Twain's characters, Huckleberry Finn.  Mr. Twain might allow you were no slouch of a storyteller. With a twitch of his mustache, he could suggest with some sly innuendo that you might have put your time to better use, learned some trade where you had a chance at making a go of a career.

You can live with both possibilities. You would rather be no slouch than a wastrel of your apprentice time.  As you race through the decades of your life, you think sometimes of the things you have produced, the things you have not produced, and the fact that you have kept faith with teacher by taking care of the tools you have borrowed from him, admired them, used them to attempt projects well beyond your ability to produce.